Time Management Pt. I: Use To Do lists to plan & improve work life balance

To Do Lists

Time management is a key skill for maintaining a balanced lifestyle. Lack of planning and rushing headlong into a large number of tasks is a sure-fire way to increase levels of stress. It is all too easy to believe that you don’t have “extra” time to spend planning if you are already overstretched. The fact is, however, a few minutes spent at the start of each day or week planning the best way to organise your time either in the home or the work place can have many positive effects. Not only does it help you use time more efficiently, but it can unclutter your mind from the jumbled to do lists you may be holding in your head.

Start a To Do List

If you are starting from scratch, try simply spending five or ten minutes writing down a “To Do” list of everything you know you have to do in the near future. You can simply use pen and paper, a whiteboard, the notes app on most smartphones, Microsoft Outlook task list or even a spreadsheet. The latter is probably the most useful later for prioritising the list and moving things around.

This simple exercise itself is great therapy. If I am getting stressed due to all the things I have to do, I find getting them out of my head and onto paper immediately starts to free space in my brain. It helps me to organise my thoughts better. Crossing things of a to do list is addictive too! Keep a separate list for work items and personal errands. For work, I update or check my list first thing in the morning, cross things off as I complete them and review the list at the end of the day so I have a plan in my head for the following day. Then I don’t need to spend time thinking about it once I have left work.

How to use To Do lists

Below is a simple example of a personal To Do List:

  • Take kids to school
  • Go shopping
  • Pick up dry cleaning
  • Fix leaky roof
  • Paint bedroom wall
  • Research & Book holiday
  • Complete tax return
  • Pick up kids

Prioritise the To Do List

Once you have the list it’s time to prioritise. Which items are urgent and need to be done today, this week or this month. Which can be planned for further out. Simply put a number next to each task starting with one for the most urgent. If you have a deadline then put the date down too, this can help with the prioritisation. This is where a spreadsheet comes in handy because once you have the priority numbers you can sort the list into numerical order.

Example of prioritised To Do List:

  1. Take kids to school
  2. Go shopping
  3. Pick up dry cleaning
  4. Paint bedroom wall
  5. Pick up kids
  6. Research & Book holiday
  7. Fix leaky roof
  8. Complete tax return

Assign a timeframe

The next action is to assess roughly how long each task is going to take. Put a rough timeframe against each item. Once you have the priority order and the rough timeframe then double-check through the list to make sure you are happy, especially with the order of any items with a definitive date to finish.

  1. Take kids to school – 0.5 hours (09:00)
  2. Go shopping – 1 hour
  3. Pick up dry cleaning – 0.5 hour
  4. Paint bedroom walls – 3 hours
  5. Pick up kids – 0.5 hour (15:30)
  6. Research & Book holiday – 2 hours (aim to complete by end of the week)
  7. Fix leaky roof – 2 hours (weather OK till Wednesday)
  8. Complete tax return – 4 hours (deadline 30 December)

Now consider when each task needs to be started. For larger tasks with a definitive finish date work backwards from the deadline subtracting how many hours (or days) it will take to complete. This gives you the latest possible time or date to begin the task. You may want to start it earlier to give a bit of slack and not put yourself under too much pressure.

Now you need to consider how many hours you have in a day to dedicate to completing the to do list. If it’s a typical eight-hour work day, then you don’t want to give yourself so many tasks that you can’t fit them within the eight hours. You may want to leave some time spare, if possible, for any immediately urgent work that crops up during the day. Maybe the boss needs something turned around quickly or allow time in case you have underestimated certain jobs.

So let’s take a look at the final list:


1. Take kids to school – Leave 08:30 – 0.5 hour – arrive 09:00
2. Go shopping – 09:30 – 1 hour – finish 10:30
3. Pick up dry cleaning – 10:30 – 0.5 hour – back home 11:00
4. Paint bedroom walls – 11:15 – 3 hours (+lunch 45 mins) – finish 15:00
5. Pick up kids – leave 15:00 – 0.5 hour – arrive 15:30
6. Research & Book holiday – arrive home 16:00 – 2 hours – finish 18:00


  1. Take kids to school – Leave 08:30 – 0.5 hours – arrive 09:00
  2. Fix leaky roof – 09:30 – 2 hours finish 11:30
  3. Complete tax return – start 11:00 – 4 hours
  4. ………….

In this simple example, “take kids to school” is as a daily task and we allocated slightly more than eight hours to complete all the tasks. Two tasks were carried over to the following day as fixing the roof was only restricted by bad weather coming on Wednesday and the tax return deadline was way off in the future.

We all get busy periods and it is OK to work overtime occasionally to complete work but to maintain a work life balance this shouldn’t be a regular occurrence. The list above is simplified, our days are often more complicated than this with new chores or tasks often being thrust upon us throughout the day. Careful planning, however, can help avoid the workload becoming unmanageable and stressful. If your job list is regularly too big for a normal working day, then don’t be afraid to ask for support or delegate the work. Click here for more information on how to control your work load.

Further Reading:

Time Management Pt. II: Managing Workload to reduce stress

Time Management Pt. III: How to improve your organisation skills

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